Facebook Badge

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tessin Journal

Living Gandhi’s Dream

This mountainous county in southeastern Switzerland straddles the border with Italy. On the Swiss side, the picturesque little village of Gordola stretches from the bottom to the top of a hill. We are sitting in the upper reaches under a bower sheltered by a grapevine with clusters of fruit hanging within arm’s reach. Looking across the valley, we can see the Ticcino River as it runs into Lago (Lake) Maggiore, of which we have an expansive view. We are at the home of our niece Lisa Pereira and her husband Beat Ferrario, having dinner that comprises salads, vegetables, meat, fruit and wine…and every item on the menu is local, grown and made in Tissin.

In the course of the evening I learn that the people here pride themselves in their self-reliance: they eat locally-grown produce and meat and drink locally-bottled wine made from local grapes, especially a Merlot, which seems to be the trademark drink of the area. Watching the sun set at around 10 pm, I marveled at the simplicity and sophistication of life in this bounteous place.

The local angle got me thinking: isn’t this what Mohandas Gandhi said when he talked about Indian villages being self sufficient? “Every village will be a republic… (It) has to be self sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world,” he wrote in the Harijan, some 63 years ago, on July 28, 1946. So while the Swiss people exult in their village republics, they also have a global presence with world beating companies in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, machine tools, textile machinery and also in lifestyle brands like Swatch, Omega, Mont Blanc and even ultimately the Swiss Army.

Sadly, in India, villages are dens of filth and inequity; major stumbling blocks to progress. As far as global brands, India now finally boasts some companies like Infosys, Wipro and Tata. In political terms, self sufficiency in India means cronyism and a seller’s market. But the Swiss version, which I experienced in Tessin, was modern and enlightened. I thought to myself: isn’t this exactly what Gandhi advocated?

In reviewing Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, the historian Ramchandra Guha wrote: “As a multilingual and yet democratic country, India’s only rival is Switzerland.” Guha’s review in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 8, 2005, was a scathing dismissal of Sen’s book, which has become the bible of the soft left in India, especially the partially literate politicians in the Congress Party. But Indian politics need not detain us here. Guha hit the nail on the head. Switzerland appears to have been the model on the basis of which Gandhi proffered his theory about village republics.

However, what Guha overlooked was that India shares the same diversity with the United States. His comparison of India and Switzerland gives me strength because at a dinner in a suburb of Zurich with the Ferrario family, I was asked what I thought about Switzerland and I said, to the horror of my interlocutors, that their country was the America of Europe: cultural diversity as well as technological prowess. My assessment was challenged with zest. I could have also brought India into the comparison except that as Guha wrote, it is “much poorer and much more diverse.”

It is a shame that my experience in Tessin has to be explained in terms of political ideology. On the contrary, the region is best described in poetic excess, with wide-eyed wonderment and innocent verse. It matches the beauty of the Himalayan regions; it is cleaner and its villages more picturesque. Above all, its inhabitants display a zeal for locally produced victuals, bread, wine, produce and meat: the essentials of the good life. They are prosperous and smiling; on the other hand, India’s hill dwellers only have a hard luck story to tell, much like the Swiss some 100 years ago.

Our experience in Tessin was a slice of heaven. The taste of the food and the wine still lingers in my taste buds as much as the tableaux in my eyes. On the way back, we stopped in Zurich, where the blue-green Limmat River flows swiftly through. I am still struck by images of young people swimming in the river, right in the heart of the city. Asked to describe Switzerland in one word, I would unhesitatingly say: “Gandhian.”

During the trip, I explained the comparative analysis to my American-born daughters. They both chorused in unison: “Lighten up, Dad, we’re on vacation.” But the comparison, I guess, is part of the Indian cross I have to bear everywhere I go.

A version of this article appeared in Bombay’s DNA newspaper in July 2006.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009